This blog post is going to be about Sergeant John Erskine VC whom I have always been aware of because he is both on the war memorial and named on his family’s headstone in the graveyard in Cairneyhill. I will be looking at John Erskine’s family and his pre-war life, his war service, his Victoria Cross and his death.
Here is the side of the family headstone which names John:
John Erskine’s family and his pre-war life
John Erskine was born on 13 January 1894 at 6pm at 30 Bridge Street, Dunfermline to William Erskine a master draper and Elizabeth Erskine ms Dick.
In 1901 the family were living at 32 Bridge Street, Dunfermline and the family consisted of: William Erskine aged 50, a draper who was born in Carnock, Fife, Bessie Erskine, William’s wife, who was 33 and born in Dunfermline and their children, John aged 7, William aged 5 and Bessie aged 3. The children were all born in Dunfermline and in 1901 John was attending school.
In 1911 the family (excluding William Erskine senior who had died in 1908) were living in Eskbank, Park Avenue, Dunfermline and the household now consisted of Elizabeth, 43, the mother (who was calling herself Bessie in 1901) and children John 17, William 15, Bessie 13, David 9, Gilmour 7, Stuart 3 and Harold 2. John was already working as a drapery apprentice (see below for further information on who John worked for).
John Erskine attended Dunfermline High School and was then employed as a draper with Robert Maule & Son, Edinburgh (again, see below for a quote from Robert Maule) and also with Pettigrew & Stephen in Glasgow. John was following in his father’s footsteps – William Erskine senior was a partner in the Dunfermline drapery firm of W & J MacLaren & Co of Bridge Street, Dunfermline.
John Erskine’s war service
John Erskine joined the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) first of all as a private and was then promoted to a sergeant. To be specific he was in the 5th/6th Battalion and he was in D company. John enlisted in Glasgow and he first arrived in France on 5 November 1914 so he must have enlisted pretty soon after war was declared. John’s regimental number was 7064 and then 20047614. The medals that John was awarded were the Victory, British War and 1914 Star medals which are the 3 standard medals for people who saw overseas service during WW1 plus the Victoria Cross (see next section). Unfortunately John’s WW1 service record is among the 70% that didn’t survive a bombing raid during WW2 so we are unable to discover any more information about John’s war service.
John Erskine’s Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross is the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the presence of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Common wealth Forces.
In my opinion, the best way to convey John Erskine’s bravery is simply to quote directly from the citation for John Erskine’s Victoria Cross as published in the London Gazette on 4 August 1916:
‘For most conspicuous bravery whilst the lip of a crater caused by the explosion of a large enemy mine was being consolidated, acting Sergeant Erskine rushed out under continuous fire with utter disregard of danger and rescued a wounded sergeant and a private. After seeing his officer, who was believed dead, showed signs of movement, he ran out to him, bandaged his head and remained with him for fully an hour though repeatedly fired at, whilst a shallow trench was being dug to them. He then assisted in bringing in his officer, shielding him with his own body in order to lessen the chance of his being hit again.’
The war diary for the 5th/6th Battalion confirms that the officer was a Lieutenant Stevenson.
I find extremely poignant the reaction of John’s mother as reported in The People’s Journal on 12 August 1916:
‘I know my laddie deserved the VC which his majesty has been pleased to award him for he always worked hard and tried to do his duty happily and carefully even when things looked their blackest’.
I also like the reaction of John’s former employer Sir Robert Maule as quoted in the Courier on 19 August 1916:
‘To me the character of his exploits seems to touch the very highest pinnacle of courage and self-sacrifice’.
John Erskine’s Victoria Cross medal is now in the Cameronian’s museum in Hamilton, Lanarkshire.
John Erskine’s Death
Unfortunately John died on 14 April 1917 near Arras in France without ever having been personally given his Victoria Cross. To make this even more tragic, John has no known final resting place.
John is commemorated on the Arras memorial, on his family headstone in the graveyard in the village of Cairneyhill, on the Cairneyhill war memorial and on the Dunfermline war memorial.
Here is the other side of the family headstone:
Here is the official reaction of the Dunfermline provost as reported in the Dunfermline Journal on 19 May 1917:
‘The provost said that they had now a very different and unexpected sequel to that period of rejoicing which was seen in the town when the news first came regarding the heroic action of the young man. The act of bravery was typical of unselfishness, he (the provost) was satisfied that the act of bravery for which the honour was given would have gladdened the heart of Mr Carnegie for it was one to save the life of others’.
‘Mr Carnegie’ is Andrew Carnegie, a Dunfermline-born steel baron and philanthropist.
I am gong to finish this blog post with the reaction of John Erskine’s mother on being presented with John Erskine’s Victoria Cross by the King and Queen on 2 June 1917 at Hyde Park as reported in he Courier on 4 June 1917:
‘The King and Queen showed particular interest in her (Mrs Erskine) especially the latter who patted her on the hand when Mrs Erskine showed signs of emotion on the record of her son’s bravery being read out’